UK consumers are grape apes
Talk to producers overseas about British wine consumers and they speak with (almost) one voice: UK punters may be averse to spending money on wine, but their levels of knowledge are unparalleled elsewhere. I'm not sure where, or when, this view originated, but I suspect it has more to do with our historic "invention" of certain styles (claret and port, for instance), and the fact that we import considerable quantities of wine, than it does with reality.
There are some extremely well-informed consumers in these islands,
but they are a small and (in absolute, bottles-disappearing-off-the-shelf terms) irrelevant minority. To put it another way: there are certainly buffs
who can tell you the minute differences between two neighbouring Burgundian premiers crus, but most consumers can't - and, more to the point, don't appear to care less.
How do I know this? I've just read the findings of Wine Nation, a piece of in-depth consumer research conducted by Constellation Europe, our country's biggest wine supplier. Constellation spent £1.3 million, interviewed 11,000 people , went on accompanied shop visits and used eye tracking technology to work out which wines sell and why.
The findings that really caught my eye were the answers to 13 basic questions. In the first round, respondents were asked to say, in each case, whether Chablis, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Corbières, Malbec, Rioja, Verdelho and Zinfandel was a) a red grape, b) a white grape, c) a wine-producing region, d) none of those or e) don't know. In the second, they were asked to look at the names of five wine regions (Barossa Valley, Central Valley, Mâcon, Marlborough and Penedés) and say whether they were to be found in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, the U S, none of the above, or don't know.
Looked at one way, the results were alarming. To take a few at random: 80% of the interviewees didn't know that Marlborough is in New Zealand and only 16% and 19% correctly identified Malbec and Zinfandel, respectively, as red grapes. A monkey trained to tick the same box each time (assuming it wasn't none of these or don't know) would have scored higher than 60% of consumers. The other 40% (classified as "high potential", "engaged experts" and "experts") did much better, but only the experts (5% of interviewees) got more than 10 right answers. You see what I mean about a minority.
Looked at another way, the low level of knowledge is good news for the wine business. As Troy Christensen, president of Constellation Europe puts it: "This is a £1 billion opportunity. If you look at what drives people's behaviour in store and you can tap into things they haven't done before, there is value to be had.
'The more educated people become, the more likely they are to trade up and to drink less but better."
Constellation has developed is a Top 10 fixture to guide punters towards certain
highlighted wines in store. The idea (along with own-label segmentation by style) has been adopted by Sainsbury's and will be rolled out in August during the company's wine festival. The aim, according to Barry Dick of Sainsbury's, is to help people
navigate their way around store, while educating them at the same time.
I am broadly in favour of both new developments, but with a couple of caveats. The Buyer's (sic) Top 10 is a good idea, but only if it guides consumers towards genuinely interesting wines. The fact that the central shelf of the fixture displayed at the press tasting was occupied by Turning Leaf Chardonnay and Turning Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon made me wonder how much thought ha d gone into the selection. Given that these wines will be offered at 25% off, I am worried
they will just become an alternative to gondola ends,
with big brand s
bidding for space and money
determin ining the choices .
More interesting in my view is the way Sainsbury's is going to market its 170-strong own-label range. There will be three colour-coded styles for whites (crisp and delicate, soft and fruity, and complex and elegant) and three for reds (light and fruity, smooth and mellow and rich and complex). Something similar has been tried
(and rejected) at Safeway, Asda and Thresher, but
it's time to try again.
The crucial difference is that the wines will still be included within their relative regions and countries, rather than grouped together on the shelves.
If it's true that punters spend 80% of their time orienting themselves in stores (another Constellation finding) this should help them to comprehend the great wall of wine.
And while I'm praising Sainsbury's for what it's up to, I'd also like to compliment the supermarket on the quality and design of its new, informative back labels. They won't change buying patterns overnight, but in future there will be no excuse for ignorance of the basics. Whether consumers respond remains to be seen.